An Amazon policy chief has claimed that workers do not want to unionise, despite allegations that Amazon has deliberately busted recent attempts by staff to form a union at one Midlands depot.
Unionising is not “what our employees have chosen to do,” director of public policy Monica Ariño told the audience at a Labour party conference fringe event on Tuesday. Workers at Coventry’s BHX4 depot, who made history earlier this year by taking the first lawful strike action against Amazon in the UK, have in fact made two separate requests for voluntary recognition since April.
“We do listen to our employees. If our employees voted under the current legal framework to recognise a union, we would do it, that’s the law,” Ariño said at the event in Liverpool.
In June the GMB union accused Amazon of using “dirty tricks” to frustrate a request for recognition at the Coventry site, after the corporate giant hired 1,000 new workers to skew the threshold needed for statutory recognition.
When asked by an attendee about Amazon’s refusal to recognise unions, Ariño continued to imply workers simply felt no need to unionise. “Like unions, we care enormously about our workers,” she said. “We care enormously about providing good pay. We provide safe and secure work, and we don’t offer any zero contracts. I am proud of the conditions that we offer our employees.”
Also on the Amazon-sponsored panel was Labour lord Jim Knight, who pressed Ariño on her claims. “You’re very convincing that you’re a wonderful employer,” he said. “What are you scared of about recognising unions if you’re such a great employer? There’s a logic there that’s missing.”
Adding that it is “difficult to organise in your sector”, he asked if Amazon would facilitate ballots.
Ariño claimed that Amazon wasn’t “anti-union,” saying that while she “personally” couldn’t facilitate recognition, the company was “allowing people to organise.”
Outside, GMB protesters leafletted the event, along with another Amazon-sponsored panel on Monday, handing out flyers that read: “Caution: Amazon lobbyists operate in this area.”
Four Labour MPs set to appear on the panels pulled out at the last minute, perhaps concerned about the optics of crossing an informal picket line or wary of prompting a row with the GMB, which is one of Labour’s biggest trade union donors.
Initially, shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds, shadow minister without portfolio Nick Thomas-Symonds, shadow cabinet office minister Pat McFadden and shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland Hilary Benn had all initially agreed to speak.
At Monday’s event, hosted by Conservative think tank Onward and chaired by actual Conservative Sebastian Payne, panellist Lord Peter Mandelson seemed visibly irritated when asked about the flyer, and demanded repeatedly to know “who from the GMB” had written it.
While the cost of a public panel at the Conservative or Labour party conference is £17,500, Onward generously offers the bargain partnership package of £30,000 for events at both.
Unlike some think tanks present at this year’s conference, Onward publishes the names of donors who give more than £5,000, with Amazon having donated every year since 2020.
Amazon may be particularly anxious to improve its image in Labour’s eyes, following an announcement from Keir Starmer in June at the GMB’s annual conference that a Labour government would use public procurement to support the creation of “unionised jobs.”
When asked at the Brighton event by a delegate how Labour would stop the flow of public money to Amazon “if they continue to refuse recognition of the workers’ union,” the Labour leader said that the awarding of government contracts was “not a free-for-all”.
Calling the GMB’s push for recognition at Amazon’s Coventry warehouse a “fantastic campaign,” Starmer said: “There’s a lot of public money tied up in public procurement, and an incoming Labour government is entitled to say it comes with terms and conditions.
“There’s a framework for public procurement, at the heart of which is dignity and respect, and we expect to see unionised jobs, and support unionised industries.”
Analysis undertaken by the GMB has shown that Amazon made £222m from government and public sector contracts in 2022. Ironically, given that Amazon’s main UK division has paid no corporation tax for two years in a row, its biggest buyer in the public sector is the HMRC, which has spent £228m on Amazon over the last five years.
GMB senior organiser Stuart Richards said: “The Labour party conference should not be a place where Amazon bosses are given a platform to spout anti-union rhetoric without challenge.
“We’ve seen 1000 workers at Amazon Coventry join GMB union and stand together to fight for decent pay and a unionised workplace. We’ve seen 1000s more from other warehouses join the union for Amazon workers.
“They deserve better than hearing an Amazon policy chief at a conference fringe announce that recognising a union was not ‘what our employees have chosen to do’ without any opportunity for any voice to be raised in opposition.
Amazon’s presence at the conference is just one way the corporate giant is looking to influence Starmer’s “pro-worker and pro-business” Labour party.
Polly Billington – Labour’s current parliamentary candidate for East Thanet, a former adviser to Ed Miliband and director of communications for Sadiq Khan – joined lobbying agency Hanover Communications as a senior adviser this year. Hanover lists Amazon as one of its clients.
Amazon also works with lobbyist firm Weber Shandwick, once described as a central “interface between big business and New Labour”, which seconded a member of staff to work for former shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds, at the price of £55,800 for seven months work.